Access Denied

Olivia Norman, 27, of Washington, explains how new technologies help and hurt her daily life, as a blind woman, with The Washington Post's Kim Hart. Video by Kim Hart/The Washington Post
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

Olivia Norman's fingers fly across her laptop keyboard, dexterously tapping out instant messages to friends and entering Google searches without committing a single typo. A minute later, she's listening intently to the voice cues that help her read e-mail and send text messages on her Motorola Q smartphone.

Norman is blind, so the cues help her navigate the tiny keypad and understand the words on the screen.

She is not able to order an on-demand movie from Comcast because she can't read the on-screen menus. And she had trouble setting up an iTunes account because the speech-synthesizing software she relies on couldn't find the right link on the Web site.

"It's a curse and a blessing at the same time," said Norman, 27, who lives in Cleveland Park. "The Internet has revolutionized my life, but there are basic things that are still completely inaccessible to people like me."

In many ways, Web technologies and mobile devices have created new ways for blind and deaf consumers to find information and connect with friends. But as entertainment and communications tools increasingly take digital form, some people with disabilities feel left behind. Online videos are not required to have captions for those who can't hear, for example, and ticker-style emergency messages are not narrated for those who can't see.

A number of efforts by various groups have tried to address some of these hurdles over the past few years.

For example, the Federal Communications Commission last year ruled that Internet phone services, such as Vonage, that connect to the public telephone network must be compatible with hearing aids and relay services, as traditional phone companies' service is. The agency also decided that wireless carriers must ensure that at least half of their cellphones are compatible with hearing aids.

Five years ago, the FCC set rules requiring video operators to provide "video description" services that narrate scenes for people with visual impairments. But those rules were overturned in court when movie studios argued that the FCC did not have authority to make such rules.

Today, a Democratic congressman plans to introduce legislation that would restore those requirements, as well as bring other big changes to the way Internet phone and video are designed.

"Now we're full-blown into this digital era, and we, in general, need to upgrade the laws that ensure that there is accessibility for all the people who use these new technologies," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

The bill, also sponsored by Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), calls for new rules for devices that display video programming. Federal law requires all TV sets with screens larger than 13 inches to display closed captions. Under the new legislation, all gadgets from MP3 music players to cellphones would be required to show captions.

Devices would also be obligated to provide video description services and read aloud emergency messages that scroll across the bottom of the screen. And they would have to be designed so that on-screen menus are usable by people with disabilities.

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